A Modern Day Miracle
1907 Monongah, West Virginia
Immigrants came to America from some of the poorest areas of Europe. They came from the Slavic lands and the poor regions of Italy, Abruzzo, Calabria, and Compania. Many came to work in the coal mines of West Virginia and Pennsylvania. In December 1907 two mine disasters, one in West Virginia and one in Pennsylvania, both fell on St. Nicholas Feast Days--December 6 and December 19. In both places miners were spared who had chosen to observe the day in church, rather than reporting to work. In Monongah, West Virginia, sixty to one hundred miners were thus spared. In Jacob Creek, Pennsylvania, nearly two hundred miners were similarly spared. This saving of lives because of the two St. Nicholas Days is a miracle.
On December 6th, 1907, St. Nicholas Day, the worst mine disaster ever in the history of the United States, took place in Monongah, West Virginia. At least 362 men and boys and probably more than 500 were killed in the blast. It was at two Fairmont Coal Company mines, No. 6 and No. 8. The explosion was so strong that the earth shook as far as eight miles away, shattering buildings and pavement, hurling people and horses to the ground, and knocking streetcars off their rails.
A train of 14 cars was being winched up to be emptied into railroad hopper cars when a coupling pin broke. The cars, filled with 30 to 40 tons of coal, sped back down the track and crashed into the mine entrance. Clouds of coal dust caught fire and blew up, making the enormous explosion. The blast force killed some immediately, others burned to death, others died of smoke inhalation, and others suffocated in the later firedamp oxygen-deprived air.
There were officially 367 miners in the two mines. However, it was common for miners to take their children—boys 9-12 years old—and other relatives into the mine to help boost their tonnage to increase their paychecks. Children also worked as breaker boys or slate pickers for $1 to $3 a week.
Though the cause of the explosion was not ever fully determined, it was believe to be either an electrical spark or a miner's open flame lamp igniting coal dust or methane. The blast destroyed the mine ventilation system and blew out the timbers supporting the roof, causing it to collapse.
Rescue was limited, as without the ventilation fans, rescuers could only be in the mine for 15 minutes at a time, or else be overcome from the lack of oxygen. One Polish miner was rescued and four Italian miners escaped and later died of injuries. Of the official death toll of 362, 171 were Italian immigrants; 94 were Slavs, including Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs, Russians, and Ukrainians.
Sixty to one hundred miners were spared because they went to church for St. Nicholas Feast day, instead of reporting to the mine. For miners from Italy and Eastern Europe, St. Nicholas Day was one of the most important religious days on both Orthodox and Catholic church calendars. Monongah had two Catholic churches at that time.
The Sabak family had two brothers working in the Fairmont mines: John, 35, had four children, and Michael, who was 23. John did not go to work that day because he'd decided to go to church. His brother Michael went to work and died in the disaster.
"Dec. 6 is St. Nicholas Day,” John's grandson Greg Sabak said. "Over in eastern Europe, traditionally, instead of giving gifts on Christmas, they get the gifts on St. Nicholas Day. What I do, my son lives out in Farmington. What I usually do is give him something on Dec. 6 in remembrance of his great-great uncle [Michael Sabak]. This way he always remembers how he is connected to West Virginia. This way it continues your heritage."
Another miner's daughter, Leanna Meffe, says, "My dad was supposed to be in the mine that day. But it was the feast of St. Nicholas, and he didn't go. Otherwise, I wouldn't be here." Her father lost a leg in another mine accident later.
As so many victims were Italian, Hungarian, or Polish, the Catholic cemetery filled up quickly. The Fairmont Coal Company gave an acre of land for a new cemetery. 135 unidentified victims were buried in a mass grave. The ruins of the two mines were bricked up.
The disaster created 250 widows and 1000 orphans. 2,000 US newspapers promoted a fundraiser to support these survivors. About $150,000 was raised. Andrew Carnegie contributed generously and Fairmont Coal Company gave $17,500. Each widow received $200 and $155 for each orphan younger than 16.
It was many years before there were memorials to the miners lost in the Monongah tragedy. The first was in 1961 and a state historical marker was erected in 1963. The centenary in 2007 brought the major first active remembrance and recognition of the miners whose lives were sacrificed in Monongah, on December 6, 1907. Several Italian towns that lost their emigrated sons have installed memorials.
Because so many Italians—at least 171—lost their lives, the Monongah disaster is thought to be the most serious to have befallen the Italian community. The tragedy had such an impact that "minonga" is used in several idioms. Even today in Calabria, when one wants to indicate a particularly dramatic event, it is customary to say that it is a minonga. Likewise, in San Giovanni in Fiore the expression, "I am not going to minonga," is used to make it clear that the person does not intend to disappear without a trace.
Monongah, bell given by the Italian Molise Region
Families in Europe often never knew what had happened. All they might know is that family members had stopped writing. The people of Molise, who had lost at least eighty-seven, had a bell made to honor the miners who perished in Monongah. Palma Pallante, from Molise, said, "The bell is our symbol. The bell doesn't just ring for church—it's for everything. If somebody died you know because they ring the bell." The bell, made in the 700-year old Marinelli Foundry in Agnone, was brought in 2007 for the 100 year commemoration of the disaster. A bell finally rang for the Monongah miners. It was blessed by Bishop Bransfield and hangs in the town square.
Inscription on the Italian-American Immigrants Memorial Bell:
- In loving memory of the Sons of Molise who tragically lost their lives in the mining disaster
Monongah December 6th 2007
The President Sen. Michele Iorio (on accompanying plaque)
- Monongah 1907-2007 A tragedy that will never be forgotten (North Face)
- Italian-American Immigrants from Molise honor their fellow countrymen who died in the collapse of the mine (West Face)
- May St. Nicholas protect us all (South Face)
- From the Region of Molise in memory of its 87 lost sons (East Face)
Bishop Bransfield also presided at the centenary Mass in Holy Spirit Catholic Church as part of the commemoration. "We know from Sago [where 12 miners died in an explosion less than two years earlier], this could happen again," Bransfield said. "No matter how much technology has advanced, no matter how smart we think we are . . . This could happen again tomorrow."
In the prayer of the faithful, as the safety of the modern-day coal miner was beseeched, the congregation responded. "Lord, hear our prayer."
San Giovanni in Fiore
The Italian town, from which many of the miners had emigrated, installed a memorial with this inscription in Italian:
Per non dimenticare minatori calabresi morti nel West Virginia (USA). Il sacrificio di quegli uomini forti tempri le nuove generazioni. Monongah, 6 dicembre 1907; San Giovanni in Fiore, 6 dicembre 2003
Lest we forget the Calabrian miners dead in West Virginia (USA). The sacrifice of those strong men shall bolster new generations. Monongah, December 6, 1907, San Giovanni in Fiore, December 6, 2003
At least 30 of the miners were from San Giovanni in Fiore, where it is said, "I am not going to minonga," when we want to make it clear that we do not intend to disappear without a trace.
The monument honors the twenty miners from Frosolone who lost their lives in the disaster and nine more who died in other US mine disasters. Two were in another Monongah disaster in 1916.
Monongah, Monongah Heroine
The statue of the Heroine of Monongah, was dedicated to the widows and orphans of the miners in 2007. The woman shown is Caterina Davia, the widow of a miner buried in the mine and mother of four children. For 29 years, she went to the mine every day, about a mile from her home, and picked up a sack of coal that she emptied on a mound next to her house. She believed that in this way she'd relieve the weight that weighed on her husband who was buried there in the mine.
The monument, made of Carrara marble, is at the Monongah town hall.
Torella del Sannio, Molise
The monument honors the twelve who died in the disaster from Torella del Sannio, Roccamandolfi, and Bagnoli del Trigno.
Mount Calvary Cemetery, Monongah
On December 6, 2007, the centenary of the disaster, the Italian Government placed the black in Mount Calvary Cemetery.
On December 6, 1907, 361 men, many of whom were Italian, perished in the mines of Monongah, West Virginia. These men were often accompanied by their young sons and other family members who assisted them in the mines.
There were countless others who lost their lives that day and who still remain unknown. Only God knows their faces, their names and the true number who departed this life.
On that fateful day, our town of Monongah pulled together and buried its dead. These men, mostly buried within the arms of this cemetery, left their wives and children in this Country and in lands far away.
May all the souls buried in this hallowed place rest in eternal peace and may they find comfort in our memories.
This monument was erected and dedicated by the initiative of the Italian Government on December 6, 2007.
Historical Marker, Monongah
The State of West Virginia Historical Marker was placed outside the Monongah town hall in 1963.
Santa Barbara Memorial Nursing Home, Monongah
SOURCES & MORE INFORMATION
- Monongah Mine Disaster: All Hope Is Gone, 425 Are Dead, Most Appalling Disaster In The History Of Coal Mines, Cause Of Explosion May Never Be Known, Fairmont Times, December 7, 1907, West Virginia Archives & History
- Monongah Mine Disaster, Fairmont Times, December 7, 1907, West Virginia Archives & History
- Report Of Hearings Before The Joint Select Committee Of The Legislature Of West Virginia To Investigate The Cause Of Mine Explosions Within the State and to Recommend Remedial Legislation Relating Thereto, 1909, West Virginia Archives & History
Testimony at hearings of the West Virginia Legislature, 1909
- The Monongah Catastrophe, The Illustrated Monthly West Virginian, January 1908, West Virginia Archives & History
- On this day in West Virginia History December 6, West Virginia Archives and History
The Monongah Catastrophe from The Illustrated Monthly West Virginian, January 1908, Teacher Resources
- Fairmont Coal Company: Monongah Mine Explosion Mine Disasters in the United States,
Reports on the disaster, including an article from the Louisville Journal & Republican, December 12, 1907
- Monongah disaster part of Sabak family history: PHOTOS by Cliff Nichols, West Virginian Times, December 6, 201
- Monongah disaster: 100 years later by Tara Tuckwiller, Charleston Gazette-Mail, December 7, 2007
- Lump of Coal by Rosemary Feurer, Mother Jones Museum, December 27, 2016
- Monongah mining disaster, Wikipedia
- Italians arrive to honor immigrants killed in 1907 Monongah mine blast by Marylynne Pitz, Pittsburgh Post Gazette, December 5, 2007
- Monongah Mining Disaster, Disasters, Boise State University
- Monongah Mine Disaster Memorial, The Historical Marker Database
- Italian-American Immigrants Memorial Bell The Historical Marker Database
- Monongah Disaster The Historical Marker Database
- Disastro in Mononga Wikipedia
- Remembering the Monongah Mine Catastrophe LaborPress, December 3, 2021